I never thought I would compare the region north of Antwerp to Scotland – until I visited Kalmthout Heath. If you get the chance to visit this lovely area, forget for a moment that you are only 20 minutes from the centre of Antwerp and just soak up the sights and sounds: heather stretching to the horizon; purple moor-grass swaying in the breeze; golden bracken fronds; inky-black peat bogs; gnarled Scot’s pines; windswept silver birch; chirruping meadow pipits and calling curlews. You could be on the Isle of Skye.
This 3750-hectare nature reserve is located close to the Dutch border. A good starting point is De Vroente, a visitor centre with interactive displays of the natural history and agriculture of the region. For those travelling by public transport, it is within walking distance of Heide railway station.
I was particularly impressed to see how the land is being managed to ensure that this unique heathland habitat is preserved. Sheep are allowed to graze different areas each year to keep the growth of heather vibrant; sluices have been built to avoid the land drying out in summer; and peat cutting is severely limited.
It’s such a large region that even a full day is not sufficient to discover all the area’s fascinating plants and animals. I want to return to discover the carnivorous sundew plant, which catches flies on its sticky leaves, and the ant-lion, a dragonfly-like insect, the larva of which digs a pit in the sand to catch and devour ants. Kalmthout Heath also holds a thriving population of natterjack toads, which are claimed to be Europe’s noisiest amphibians, as the call of the male is audible over several kilometres. In spring each year, flocks of up to a thousand whimbrel (wading birds) congregate in the wetter parts of the heath during breaks in their migrations.
The Beekeeping Museum next to the visitor centre is also well worth a visit. It’s a modern building divided into hexagonal areas, just like a honeycomb. Each area explains the fascinating world of bees; live ones can be seen and heard at close quarters. Finally, Taverne De Heihoeve offers a wide range of snacks. Your kids will probably love the Honeybee Pancake!
For the kids – Kalmthout Heath will give you an excellent opportunity to practice your map-reading. At the visitor centre you can buy a detailed walking map of the area. You can then plan your own route, maybe starting on one of the well-marked paths, before venturing off on some of the many footpaths that cross the area.